With just over five minutes left in Winder-Barrow’s season opener against Clarke Central on Friday night at W. Clair Harris Stadium, Bulldogg quarterback Brock Landis had the Gladiators right where he wanted them.
With the Bulldoggs starting at their 25-yard line following a fumble recovery, the senior was looking to engineer a game-winning drive.
Landis did just that, hitting Noah McDowell on a 17-yard touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone with 1:57 left to give Winder-Barrow a 35-28 lead. Moments later, Bulldoggs safety Cole Walton intercepted a Jack Mangel pass to nail down the non-region win and avenge a season-opening 31-0 loss to the Gladiators in Athens a year ago.
“We owed Clarke Central that one,” Landis said after the victory. The 6-foot-4 NCAA Division I recruit finished the night with 155 yards through the air and a pair of touchdowns. His two biggest throws came on the final drive — a 15-yarder to Trace Wells, who hauled in a high and tight pass on third down to give the Bulldoggs a fresh set of downs at the Clarke Central 25, and the game-winner to McDowell.
“As a quarterback, you live for those moments,” Landis said of the final drive. “You’ve just got to stay calm, cool and collected and just go out there and do your thing and trust your teammates to make plays.”
Landis’ composure gave Winder-Barrow coach Heath Webb all the confidence he needed in his quarterback to go win the game.
“That’s why he has the job and the experience,” Webb said. “We trust him to make plays. He did exactly what we asked of him, and then we were able to win the ballgame with a great defensive stand and the pick there at the end.
“We beat a very good football team. I’m just proud of our guys for fighting. I don’t know any other way to describe it other than we just fought and made plays when we needed to.”
It was by no means an easy for the Bulldoggs, who broke open a 7-7 halftime tie with three touchdowns in the span of just over four minutes early in the third quarter — only to see the Gladiators roar back with three scores of their own to knot it at 28.
Senior two-way starter Jaidon Turner, a transfer from Brookwood, returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown to put the Bulldoggs ahead 14-7 with 10:58 left in the third. Earlier, he had hauled in a 26-yard pass from Landis to give Winder-Barrow the early advantage.
“Jaidon got us jumpstarted tonight,” Webb said. “He’s a heck of a player. He made some great plays on both sides of the ball. You can see his athleticism in the open field. He’s just very tough to tackle when he gets going and he’s going to make a lot of plays for us this year.”
Following the pick-six, the Bulldoggs caught another break when Clarke Central’s kick returner fielded a low line drive on the ensuing kickoff and kneeled down on his own 3. Winder-Barrow’s defense then forced a three-and-out and took over at the Gladiator 35. Three plays later, Sterling Sumpter spurted up the middle for a 27-yard touchdown run that boosted the lead to 21-7.
On the next drive, the Bulldogg defense forced a fumble and recovered it at the Gladiator 13. The Doggs had to settle for a field-goal attempt, which started off disastrous when the snap skidded on the ground. But Wells, the holder, alertly picked it up, rolled to his right and found a wide-open Sumpter, who trotted into the end zone from there to make it a 28-7 contest.
“The snap was on the ground, but we work on things like that,” Wells said. “I knew I could find a guy and make a play and that’s what happened. We’ve been working hard all summer, giving everything we’ve got day in and day out at practice. To see it pay off with nights like this is great. We’ve got a great team here.”
A veteran and talented Clarke Central squad, coming off a 7-5 season and trip to the second round of the GHSA Class AAAAA playoffs last year, didn’t go quietly. Junior running back Jonathan Sewell, who has already landed SEC offers from Ole Miss and South Carolina, scored on a 41-yard touchdown on the following possession to make it 28-13 after a missed extra-point attempt with 5:33 left in the quarter.
The Gladiators would eventually cut the deficit down to 28-20 on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Mangel to Xavier Coates with 9:02 remaining in the game. They tied it less than two minutes later when Jaysean Galloway picked up a blocked punt and returned it 25 yards and Mangel hit Jacob Dula in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion.
Clarke Central’s defense held on the next possession and got a big return inside the Winder-Barrow 30 before the critical fumble that set up the game-winning drive for the Bulldoggs.
“It’s too bad for Clarke Central because they played hard, too, but I’m just so proud of our guys for fighting like mad and playing their guts out tonight,” Webb said.
In hindsight, Webb said, the shellacking the Bulldoggs took at the hands of the Gladiators last season turned out to be a blessing in disguise for a program that has reached the state playoffs three consecutive seasons for the first time ever, but is looking to take the next step of winning its first postseason game since 1993.
“(Clarke Central) opened our eyes. That game was a catalyst because it completely changed our football program and made us realize how we need to win ballgames,” Webb said. “We’re just more experienced. We’re grittier. We’re tougher. I’m really proud of the way our kids fight and compete.”
“I feel like we’re more of a family,” Landis added. “Everybody gets along. We come together as a collective group. It’s just a better atmosphere in the locker room and that really shows up in tough games like this.”
C 0 7 6 15 — 28
W 0 7 21 7 — 35
W—Brock Landis 26 pass to Jaidon Turner (Omar De La Rosa kick)
C—Ladarius Smith 4 run (William Downs kick)
W—Turner 54 interception return (De La Rosa kick)
W—Sterling Sumpter 27 run (De La Rosa kick)
W—Trace Wells 8 pass to Sumpter (De La Rosa kick)
C—Jonathan Sewell 41 run (run failed)
C—Jack Mangel 16 pass to Xavier Coates (Downs kick)
C—Jaysean Galloway 25 blocked punt return (Mangel pass to Jacob Dula)
W—Landis 17 pass to Noah McDowell (De La Rosa kick)